The Owls of Montara Mountain

In March came the virus but also came the owls. Two fuzzy-white great horned owls.

At first we thought they were alone in the nest near the ranger’s house. I happened to have a camera with me with a powerful zoom and made an image of their faces peering wide-eyed and worried over the brim of the nest, transfixed upon us. The little owls nearly filled the frame of the image, thanks to the lens’s magnification and we marveled over our little discoveries, high up in the tree.

With our cell phones we took pictures of the image of the owls on the screen from the back of the camera, sharing our find with our friends, wondering where the mother might be. Our friends wrote back. The mother is right there, they said, in the nest. And she was. Camouflaged against the leaves of the tree, her head positioned in view behind the baby owls as if we had posed her ourselves.

Photograph of screen by Ally Boville

With the virus our five-mile walk on Montara mountain became a daily ritual, my two daughters, a boyfriend, and my wife. We went toward sundown to try to catch the owls when they might be more active.

They grew in the nest, slowly maturing and then suddenly they had wings, brown adult wings improbably hiding in all that fuzz.

The path below the nest became a popular stopping point for local hikers, watching the birds as they bobbed their heads up and down and back and forth like boxers. Occasionally the mother would bring them food, often a vole, which she would tear apart and offer to them.

We became the Owl Family, we learned, because we were always out there and because my daughters and the boyfriend were all biologists, recent graduates and they were amateur birders. Strangers would ask me how the owls were doing.

One man and his little boy were on the mountain and I was told he was interested in finding the owls so he could show his kid. I approached him, spoke with him from a safe distance for a second or two—then he interrupted me, asked for my youngest daughter by name, looking over at her. She had been logging the birds on our daily walks into eBirds, an online database. Somehow he knew her from there.

A few weeks later the owls weren’t in the nest. We found them forty feet away, one high in the tree, looking down. The other ten feet up the trunk of that tall tree, struggling to climb up its vine-covered bark, awkwardly grasping each talon-full of strands, trying to stabilize itself with its wings.

Their first flights were guided falls, their first true flights controlled crashes.

Photography by Ally Boville

Then they were gone. The crowd on the trail vanished as well, the show over.

Like many people we found the owls a respite from our lives in lockdown. My wife was working from home, the kids taking online classes during the day. But the late afternoon was hike time and we never missed a day, each of us carrying binoculars and sometimes cameras, tripods, and a spotting scope. My youngest daughter became skilled at shooting handheld photos with her iPhone pressed up against the lens of her binoculars.

We found the owls in the next grove over, a few hundred feet from their nest. They were harder to see here, and most other people didn’t want to take the time to look, but we found them, sometimes easily, sometimes with difficulty. The dad would make an appearance, too, and we learned his markings and could differentiate him from the mother.

The babies weren’t babies anymore, though their fuzzy heads and lack of “horns” gave away their youth. Both were vocal at first, a great aid in locating them, and sometimes it seemed as if they would follow us as we moved about the mountain, especially after sunset.

As July came we knew they would soon leave the area for their own hunting grounds, and we ourselves were about to embark on a five-week cross-country trip. We said good-bye to the owls and hoped we would see them again and wondered if we would even recognize the juveniles when we returned.

When we visited that grove again in late August we had great difficulty locating any of the owls. Then we saw one, then a glimpse of another, then the dad, perched in a favored spot in the tree above the house. Their range had grown to include a line of trees fronting a creek next to a ranch and much of the area was inaccessible to us, although a trail across from the ranch afforded a long-distance view where we would sometimes see them.

Somedays we saw all four, sometimes none, but usually we spotted both juveniles. Then we stopped seeing one of them. Several days in a row went by without seeing him. The other juvenile, who remained vocal even as he got older, would call and call, as he had always done, but there was no response. He’s flown off, we thought, it is the way of the world.

The next day the ranger saw us and waved and we chatted. I was with my wife and youngest daughter and he knew my daughter was a biologist and would she be interested in what he had found in his back yard? It was a wing, a wing of a juvenile great horned owl, torn so cleanly from the body that you might imagine it was surgically removed. The other wing was not far away in the bushes, equally perfect and clean. Next to it under the bush, gross with mud and blood, was the skull, the eye, and unknowable viscera, all blackened by exposure to the air.

The ranger offered to give the remains to my daughter and we took it home in a brown paper bag. During lockdown she had kept her job at UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and she contacted someone there and they arranged to donate the wings to the museum’s collection.

People still ask us about the owls as we hike along the trail, how are they doing, have we seen them recently. We tell them everything we know, share every experience, but say nothing of the wings, of the death of the juvenile. We don’t want to ruin it for people, we don’t want to spoil the magic that all of us shared on the mountain, that sense of being together, that sense of life moving forward, the beauty and rightness of the world.

We still see what we think is the other juvenile, now down by the school. We walk more and more at night, as the sun sets ever sooner, and we walk around the neighborhood. When we approach the school area the owl, sitting in the tree by the streetlight or perched on the power line, will often call out, like it’s calling out to us, like it recognizes us.

And maybe it does.

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